It’s hard to escape the feeling that Netflix’s latest teen-pleasing TV show could also be the poster child for the giant of streaming’s ability to harness its viewer data and create the video equivalent of paint-by-numbers – shows-by-algorithm. With deep-fake tech getting better by the day, that might not be too far off. For now, though, we’ve got Daybreak.
A teen comedy, drama, action, horror series packed with zombie-like creatures, high-school stereotypes, novel weaponry, and witty repartee aplenty, Daybreak is the quintessential on-screen example of 21st-Century pastiche. Miraculously, though, it doesn’t drown under the weight of its innumerable influences.
If you like Mad Max-style outfits, Lord of the Flies-like premises and American Pie-inspired banter, you’ll love it. If not, you’ll almost certainly loathe it. But the good news is, you’ll know which camp – or tribe – you fall into mere minutes into proceedings.
Jocks and other horrors
Our star is Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford), a Canadian every-teen who starts at a new school in Glendale, California. There he meets (and falls for) the British, blonde darling of the school Sam Dean (Sophie Simnet) and tries to navigate the usual perils of teenagedom. Until what looks like a nuclear bomb goes off, that is, all the adults are turned into zombie-esque “ghoulies”, and Glendale becomes a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Sam’s nowhere to be found, Ferraris and other fun toys are unguarded (and presumably all have keys in their ignitions), and the surviving youngsters have banded together in tribes, the divisions of which largely resemble those they fell into before the end-times.
There are the nerdy STEM Punks, the short-skirted and Tina Turner-like Cheermazons, the jocks – led by uber-jock and dual example of nominative determinism Turbo Pokaski (Cody Kearley) – and the wonderfully awful Golf Bros of Terry, Jerry, Gary, Barry and Larry. So far, so ridiculous.
It’s totally over-the-top and often formulaic. But it’s also rollicking fun.
Through a mix of flashbacks and real-time narrative, we get to meet other members of Glendale. Oddest of the bunch is the high school principal Michael Burr (Matthew Broderick), while the most amusing is Miss Crumble (Krysta Rodriguez). Then there’s jock-turned-samurai Wesley Fists (Austin Crute) and the foul-mouthed pyromaniac home-schooled prodigy Angelica Green (Alyvia Lind).
You can see where this is going, right? Despite being leading-man handsome, Wheeler was always an outsider … now he has to find his tribe, find his gal, and generally save the day. While kicking ass, getting out of impossible situations and creating makeshift weapons along the way. It’s totally over-the-top and often formulaic. But it’s also rollicking fun.
The good, the bad, and the zombie
When Daybreak’s cracks show the most is when it indulges its most puerile instincts, or when it gets Germanic and insists on explaining its jokes. But overall it’s surprisingly smart. Miss Crumble, for example, is actually an unnamed biology teacher who was bullied into her name by her students. Though Ghoulyfied, she’s still able to control her baser instincts and gets some delightful, if grotesque, scenes where she wrestles with her desires.
Meanwhile, it’s a lovely touch that the undead grownups are stuck repeating aloud whatever they were thinking before death. It’s a curious inversion of the Kids Say the Darndest Things formula, and it’s harnessed to great effect, as is the pop-rock soundtrack and nods to current cultural signposts like having a character defined by his artifice called Eli Cardashyan (Gregory Kasyan).
Somehow, between the gore, executive producers Aron Eli Coleite, Brad Peyton and Jeff Fierson also let the writer and director sneak in some superb feminist touches, and the third episode, where the potty-mouthed Angelica takes the fourth-wall-breaking helm is one of the highlights of the season.
If you loved The Hunger Games but wanted them a little more, umm, humorous, Daybreak is the genre-bending, post-apocalyptic blood-fest you didn’t know you needed.